2014 marks twenty-five years since I first attended the Sydney Film Festival. Since 1989 I have attempted to see at least one film each year, with only a few years of not being able to attend at all. My before-husband and I used to call it Christmas in June. My now-husband loves it just as much. Every year I see friends in attendance, people I’ve worked with on and off screen, more and more familiar names in the credits as my years stretch on. It’s a joy, and in this blog I wanted to express my affections to this cinematic marker of time.
My first festival was also my first year of university. I’d never heard of a film festival apart from Cannes, and my friend Shane (who turned festivals into his lifelong career) introduced me to it. We went together, and I felt like I’d finally found a church I could believe in. The film was Bodywork, the wonderful doco by David Caesar, and it screened in the State Theatre, which I’d never seen before. It was magnificent, like being inside the Queen’s brain. I loved the whole experience, from the film itself to the opulent bathroom to the company of a fellow film-obsessive.
The following year I was too poor to go, but I found out that the volunteers were given tickets as remuneration. So, for the next few years I worked in the office, and learned a great deal about the inner workings of a festival and how to plan, market and execute a film event. Lessons I still utilise to this day!
Subsequent festivals have produced a range of wonderful experiences. I saw the premiere screening of Poison in 1991, by Todd Haynes, and in the intro before the screening he announced that we were to be given a special treat. He then dimmed the lights and screened his featurette Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, which had been banned after legal action. It was ingenious, and used Barbie dolls to tell the whole sordid story. I may be one of the few Australians (apart from my fellow attendees) to see this camp plastic classic before YouTube made it available to all.
I saw the premiere of Strictly Ballroom in 1992, and felt I was witnessing a wonderful Renaissance in cheerful Australian storytelling. In the same year I saw Van Gogh and was riveted for all four hours of it. I saw hundreds of amazing foreign films and, oh – the documentaries! Hoop Dreams, Buena Vista Social Club, Black Chicks Talking, Mad Hot Ballroom, The September Issue, the list goes on. I’ve also attended some stunning Opening Night parties, and hobnobbed with the best.
It’s not all perfection of course – I have seen some incredible shite, including one dreadful opus about the filmmaker’s lesbian awakening, told entirely in tedious continuous shots of station wagons. No, I don’t get it either. But since you never know if the filmmaker is sitting next to you, there was only the mildest amount of catcalling and even a smattering of sympathetic applause when it as finally over.
Personal milestones seem to be marked by the wondrous fortnight as well. In 1994 I was still fighting my battle with cancer, and losing at the time. Despite the warnings from my doctor and the frailties of my condition, I tried to see a movie every day. In 1997 I timed the end of a producing contract so I could attend ever session, eight months pregnant, before my baby was born. I was so pregnant, I’m sure I made a few people anxious. The 2000s were harder, with three small children and a full time business, but I managed every now and then. And four times now, including last year, I have been forced to miss the festival completely – because I was shooting a film of my own. That’s a special joy.
The first few years I attended I had a paper program, and lovingly read about every film and circled the ones I could attend with a pen. I bought a Green Pass because I was single and freelance and could attend sessions during the day. Some days I saw four films in a row. Now I have an app that helps me choose the movies, I don’t even need a paper ticket, and I can only attend at night because my business (and family) has grown.
The only thing I’ve never experienced, and hope to one day, is to see a film of my own screened at the Festival. For me, that would be like winning an Oscar. I was a teenager when I first started attending, dreaming big of making movies and seeing my own name up on the screen, when a ticket cost the same amount as several weeks rent but never felt like a luxury – I’ve come so far, and I still have a ways to go. And every year I get a chance to remember the early years, revel in the journey so far, and gaze ahead at the wonders yet to come.
May you be as inspired, every now and then, to take a minute and see how well you’ve survived the journey in your own creative life. It makes the travelling so much more worthwhile if you look back every so often. It’s a gift, so remember to enjoy it. And now, if you’ll excuse me – the wonderful darkness awaits!
For more history, visit the living archive at http://online.sffarchive.org.au.